Memorandum by the Home Office
CONTROLS ON FIREARMS
A Introduction: Government Policy on Firearms
B Controls on Air Weapons
Inadequacies in the existing controls
Possible further controls
Further Age Restrictions
C Controls on shotguns
Controls on shotguns: a short history
Statistics for crime involving shotguns
The use of shotguns in farming
Prohibition on self loading and pump-action
A single certificate for firearms
(abolition of the shotgun certificate)
Restrictions on shotguns in urban
D Success of the 1997 Acts in removing handguns
The effect of the ban on illegally held firearms
E Controls on other firearms requiring a
Rifles and Carbines in Pistol Calibres
Self-loading .22 Rimfire Rifles
Safety testing and proficiency in rifle handling
Handguns held under sections 2-7 of the 1997
Changes to the licensing system
"Gun Culture" in the United Kingdom
F Illegal firearms
Illegal Firearms and their Use
Current Policy Initiatives
A. Government Policy on Firearms Matters
Following the tragic events at Dunblane and
the public inquiry conducted by Lord Cullen, all parties agreed
on the urgent need to address the control of handguns. Legislation
to prohibit these weapons was subsequently enacted by Parliament
in the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 and the Firearms (Amendment)
(No. 2) Act 1997. The legislation quite properly concentrated
on the issues surrounding the Dunblane tragedy and the recommendations
of Lord Cullen's report.
The control of firearms is a complex area that
requires careful consideration. Earlier this year the Firearms
Consultative Committee, the independent statutory body that advises
the Government on firearms matters, were asked to look at a range
of firearms issues which have been raised since the legislation
was enacted. The Government looks forward to the report of the
Committee at the end of this year.
For this reason, this memorandum is intended
to set out the main issues and arguments involved in the areas
concerned rather than to press for particular changes to the law.
The Government would wish to take into account the views of interested
parties before deciding what further measures, if any, might be
needed to improve public safety.
The Home Office has been involved in considerable
work over the past few years flowing from the passage of the 1997
Firearms Acts. This includes the programme for surrender of handguns
and ancillary equipment, the payment of compensation for these
and the design and implementation of the Firearms Rules 1998.
Although this work has taken priority, the Government has made
it clear that it would be keeping all firearms controls under
close scrutiny to see whether other measures are needed to safeguard
the public. Inevitably there has been a period of uncertainty
following the 1997 legislation. It is only now that a clearer
picture is beginning to emerge of the developments which have
been taking place as some people have looked for new forms of
shooting in which to participate.
In terms of general principle, the Government
does not have any overall objections to the use of firearms either
for target shooting or for game shooting and estate management.
It is certainly not the Government's aim to ban the shooting of
animals within the general laws on game and wildlife. Nor has
the Government any intention to prohibit outright the possession
of firearms by private citizens in the UK. Ministers have made
this clear on numerous occasions.
We believe that any changes to controls on firearms
should flow from full and careful consideration of the issues,
and in particular the need to secure public safety. On this basis,
the Government welcomes the HAC inquiry, and is happy to assist
its work as needed.
B. Controls on Air Weapons
For the purposes of the firearms legislation,
an airgun is a weapon with a barrel through which a missile is
discharged by the use of compressed air or carbon dioxide. It
must be borne in mind, however, that not all airguns can be classed
Section 57 of the Firearms Act 1968 defines
a firearm as a lethal barrelled weapon capable of the discharge
of any shot, bullet or other missile. Thus, in order to be classed
as a firearm, an object must be a weapon, it must have a barrel
through which some kind of missile is fired and the effect of
the missile on the target must be lethal. Lethality is defined
as "capable of inflicting a more than trivial injury"a
trivial injury being one in which only superficial damage such
as bruising occurs. In essence, if the pellet from a particular
gun is capable of penetrating the skin, that gun is a firearm.
Expert advice from the Forensic Science Service
is that the lowest power level at which a penetrating injury can
occur is at a muzzle energy of about one foot pound, which roughly
equates to 1.35 joules. Some airguns, those of the type generally
referred to as "airsoft" guns, have muzzle energies
well below this levelusually about half a foot pound or
lessand because of this they do not fit the definition
of a firearm and do not come under the control of the Firearms
The expert view is that, at those very low power
levels, such guns are incapable of penetrating even vulnerable
parts of the body, such as the eye, although a direct hit from
very close range would cause bruising.
At a step up from airsoft guns are low-powered
airguns. These are pistols with muzzle energies below six foot
pounds but greater than one foot pound and rifles with muzzle
energies between three-quarters of a foot pound and 12 foot pounds.
Due to their comparatively low power, the law does not require
these to be kept on a police-issued firearm certificate or otherwise
licensed but, because they are capable of inflicting a penetrating
wound, they are nonetheless classed as "firearms".
At a further step up, higher powered airguns
of the type often used for hunting small game or in the control
of vermin must be kept on a firearm certificate in the same way
as any other of the firearms which come under the control of section
1 of the Firearms Act. This brings high-powered airguns into the
same category as, for example, high-powered deer-stalking rifles.
High-powered air pistols (those with muzzle-energies over six
foot pounds) are treated as conventional handguns and subject
therefore to the same prohibitions.
Even though there is no need to apply for a
firearm certificate in order to buy and keep one, low-powered
airguns are clearly firearms and, as such, fall within the scope
of the Firearms Acts. There is a wide range of offences relating
to firearms but the ones which have most relevance to airguns
are about age limits, the carrying and discharging of guns and
the carrying of airguns in relation to other crimes.
It is an offence to give an airgun to anyone
under the age of 14 or to sell one to anyone under 17. Having
a loaded airgun in a public place is an offence, as is firing
one within 50 feet of a public road. Trespassing with an airgun,
be it in a building or on open land, is also an offence.
At the top end of the scale, having an airgun
with the intention of committing a crime is a very serious offence,
as is having one with the intention of endangering life or property.
There are a range of penalties for these various
offencesgoing from heavy fines£5,000 for the
lesser ones, such as those relating to age limits, to life imprisonment
for offences such as going armed to commit a crime or carrying
an airgun with the intention of using it to endanger life. The
punishment imposed in any individual case will naturally depend
on the judgement of the court upon the circumstances and gravity
of the offence committed.
In addition to all of these offences, it is
also an offence to possess a high-powered air rifle without a
firearm certificate issued by the police. Before issuing a firearm
certificate for such a gun, the police will need to be satisfied
as to a number of things. They will need to be sure that the applicant
is a fit and proper person to be entrusted with a firearm. They
will also need to be satisfied that when not in use, the gun will
be kept securely and that the applicant has a good reason for
possessing it in the first place.
Target shooting in a recognised discipline is
usually taken as such a good reason, but the most usual reasons
for people to buy a high powered airgun is to hunt small game
or to control vermin. Most airgun target shooting disciplines
are for low powered airguns for which the individual does not
need a firearm certificate.
There has over the years been an increase in
the overall number of airgun-related incidents notified to the
police. Between 1987 and 1997 (the last year for which figures
are available) the annual total of notifiable offences increased
from 5,172 to 7,506. However, in the same period, the incidence
of injury caused by airgun misuse has shown a steady, year on
year decline. In 1997 there were 33 per cent fewer injuries from
airgun misuse than there were in 1987down from 1,782 in
1987 to 1,194 in 1997. 125 of these incidents in 1997, or less
than 11 per cent of the total, consisted of an injury more serious
than superficial bruising. There was one fatality between 1993
and 1997, and prior to that there was on average one fatality
a year, with three fatalities being the maximum in any one year.
The table at Annex A has been compiled to give
some indication of the incidence of both airgun and shotgun offences
in each force area, with forces ranked in accordance with their
urban/rural classification. (Dyfed Powys has a ranking of 10 out
of 100 and is therefore the most rural. Forces such as the Metropolitan
Police and the West Midlands are the most urban with factors of
The table indicates that, controlling for different
population sizes of each force, rates of shotgun misuse increase
somewhat in urban areas, although there is some variation around
this overall trend. In group 4, for example; rates of shotgun
misuse in Northumbria are over three times higher than in Hertfordshire,
although the degree of "urbanness" is similar. With
regard to air weapons, there is less of a pattern across the more
rural and the more urban forces. Again, there is much variation
between forces and differences in force practice as regards recording
of air weapons offences cannot be ruled out.
Some three-quarters of offences involving air
weapons involve criminal damage valued at more than £20.
Damage below this level is not recorded. The rise in recorded
air weapon offences should therefore be seen in the context of
inflation causing more such offences to be recorded.
When considering the question of airgun misuse
and the safety of the public from airguns in general, it should
be borne in mind that the vast majority of airgun shooters are
simply target shooters who pursue their chosen sport in a responsible
and disciplined manner.
The sport of target shooting with airguns is
a recognised Olympic event. Indeed, it is one in which British
competitors have traditionally excelled.
Many shooting clubs have airgun ranges at which
young people (as well as more mature novice shooters) are taught
to use airguns safely and responsibly under proper tuition and
Airgun ranges are also frequently used by clubs
to introduce new members to firearms and to the safe handling
of them before allowing these probationers to handle the more
powerful conventional firearms on the club's main range. This
gives new shooters experience of handling much safer weapons before
they are allowed to come into contact with a more powerful cartridge-firing
Despite this responsible use of airguns, and
despite the requirements of the law, there is still a minority
of people, mainly youngsters, who either own or have access to
an airgun and who choose to use it irresponsibly and sometimes
As set out above, there is already a range of
offences that might be committed by people misusing airguns. In
considering how the law in this area might be improved, it may
be helpful to consider the extent to which the authorities might
be able to enforce any further controls if the present ones are
The recent Crime and Disorder Act introduced
a comprehensive range of measures to reform the youth justice
system. Although not directly aimed at airgun crime, these measures
will impinge on such offences in the same way as they will on
other crime. They include:
a new Final Warning, which will trigger
intervention by local agencies to nip offending in the bud;
the halving of the time currently
taken to process young offenders from arrest to sentence; and
the Child Protection Order, which
will, where it proves necessary, ensure that young children are
kept off the streets and out of trouble late at night.
These measures, together with the existing firearms
legislation, should help to reduce the incidence of misuse of
airguns. The firearms legislation will continue to be kept under
close scrutiny to see if there is anything further which needs
to be done to protect public safety. The Firearms Consultative
Committee is considering again the controls on airguns in its
programme of work for this year. Any recommendations made to improve
airgun safety will be considered.
Because they are not subject to a licensing
regime, there is no mechanism by which a proper account of the
extent of ownership of low-powered air weapons can be kept. Because
of this there is no way of knowing how many air weapons there
are in private ownership. The police estimate that there are some
four million air weapons in circulation.
Without a reliable figure for the number of
air weapons in circulation, it is very difficult to control their
ownership. For this reason, the legislation concentrates on controlling
their use by imposing penalties for misuse.
This, in itself, can be difficult since airguns
can cause injuries or damage to property at ranges which make
the perpetrator difficult to identify and bring to justice. It
also makes it more difficult to prevent a person convicted of
misusing air guns from continuing to acquire them.
There are already certain age limits in place
to control the possession and use of air weapons by young people.
A person under 14 years of age must not be in
possession of an air weapon or ammunition except as a member of
a shooting club, on a miniature rifle range or on private property.
At all times, such a person must be supervised by an adult over
the age of 21, who must ensure that no missiles are allowed to
cross the boundaries of the property on which the shooting is
taking place. Giving an air weapon to a person under 14 in any
but the above circumstances is of itself an offence.
A person under 17 years of age may not have
an air weapon in a public place unless it is securely fastened
in a gun cover in such a way that it cannot be fired. It is an
offence for a person under 17 to buy an air weapon or ammunition
or for anyone to sell an air weapon or ammunition to such a young
The complexity of the age limits applied to
the possession of air weapons leaves them open to being misunderstood
or simply ignored. Indeed, in 1997, 297 people under 17 were convicted
of having an air weapon in a public place and 83 other cases were
dealt with by a police caution. In the same year, 60 people under
14 were convicted of possession of an air weapon or ammunition
and a further 87 cautioned. There were also 540 convictions and
59 cautions for carrying a loaded air weapon in a public place,
although how many of those cases related to people under 17 is
For this reason, the Government has asked the
Firearms Consultative Committee to look at controls on the possession
of firearms by young people as part of its work programme.
Attacks on animals
The Cat Protection League estimates that annually
there are 10,000 attacks on cats by people using air weapons.
There are no official figures to corroborate this although attacks
on domestic pets and wild animals are certainly no rarity.
There are laws to protect domestic animals and
protected wild birds and animals from abuse, with a maximum penalty
of a fine of £5,000. However, most of these attacks take
place out of sight of other people and are therefore difficult
to prosecute. Nevertheless successful prosecutions have taken
plan and will continue to be undertaken wherever possible. In
a recent case in London, a man was convicted of shooting a neighbour's
cat and fined, even though he denied the offence and no one saw
him do it. It must be accepted, though, that in most cases circumstantial
evidence is not as strong as it was in that particular case and
convictions less likely.
To ban all airguns, as some people suggest,
ignores the many legitimate uses of such weapons. Besides their
use in target or competition shooting, they are also used for
vermin control, the hunting of small game and for firing anaesthetic
darts at animals which require veterinary treatment but which
would not be safe to approach in any other way.
As previously indicated, the majority of airgun
owners, whether sports shooters or professional vermin controllers,
are respectable, law-abiding citizens who use their guns in a
safe and responsible manner. To deprive them of their guns because
of the behaviour of a tiny minority could be seen as being unnecessarily
heavy-handed. It would also treat air weapons as more "dangerous"
than more powerful rifles and shotguns presently subject to licensing.
On the practical side, a prohibition would have
to be accompanied by a compensation scheme. Since there is no
way of knowing for sure how many air weapons there are in circulation,
the cost of such a scheme is difficult to estimate but there is
no doubt that it would run into many millions of pounds.
It is also uncertain whether a ban would prevent
the kind of damage to property and injuries to people and animals
currently caused by the abuse of airguns. There is a range of
other missile weapons available which are not controlled by the
firearms legislation and which would probably be used instead
of airguns should air weapons be prohibited. Small crossbows,
powerful wrist-braced catapults and even thrown stones are perfectly
capable of causing similar, and in some cases more severe, injuries
and damage to those caused by air weapons. While the possession
of an air weapon may encourage some forms of hooligan behaviour,
this may equally be a symptom of a more generally anti-social
attitude independent of air guns.
It has been argued that, since low-powered air
weapons fall under the definition of a firearm as given in section
57 of the principal Act, they should be kept on a firearm certificate
in the same way as any other firearm. In this way, no one would
be able to acquire an air weapon without first satisfying the
police that they have a genuine need to possess one, that they
will keep it securely and that they are fit and proper persons
to be entrusted with such a weapon. Moreover, it would mean that
the number and whereabouts of all the airguns in private ownership
would be known.
However, there is a real practical problem in
pursuing this approach. There are an estimated four million air
weapons in private ownership. Currently, policy Firearms Licensing
Departments are stretched to cope with the 133,600 firearm certificates,
623,100 shotgun certificates, 8,670 visitor's permits and 2,400
dealer's registrations already on issue. Allowing for the fact
that some people will own more than one air weapon, the police
would still have to cope with several million additional certificates.
Moreover, those certificates would have to be issued within a
very short space of time after the introduction of a certificate
regime. The Government understands that the police do not favour
a system of certification.
Further age restrictions
As previously indicated, the current age restrictions
for the possession and purchase of air weapons are somewhat arbitrary
and potentially confusing. Because of this there is a case for
rationalising the situation to ensure that young people are not
allowed unsupervised access to an air weapon under any circumstances.
An age often quoted is 18. This would mean that
young people would have to reach their majority before being allowed
to obtain an air weapon of their own or use one without supervision.
Since most of the incidents involving the abuse of air weapons
involve youngsters, such an age limit would be likely to cut down
on the incidence of such abuse. It should be noted, however, that
many young people are introduced to the safe and responsible handling
of firearms through the use of air weapons.
There are a number of problem areas in the control
of the use and possession of air weapons, notably lack of a certification
regime, the fact that they are relatively freely available to
young people and the difficulty of apprehending and prosecuting
those who misuse them.
These problem areas can be addressed by introducing
one or more of three measures: introducing a licensing regime;
rationalising and raising the age limits at which airguns may
be acquired; and prohibiting their possession altogether.
An outright ban would carry with it a significant
cost in terms both of compensation payments to airgun owners and
police resources. It would almost certainly leave some people
in inadvertent breach of the law and, although large numbers of
prosecutions would be unlikely, would significantly extend any
surrender period. The legislation would be limited by the need
to introduce exemptions for legitimate uses such as vermin control
and anaesthetic darting. Moreover, such a ban could be criticised
as disproportionate. The problem or airgun abuse is certainly
worrying but nevertheless the number of responsible owners far
outnumber the few who choose to use them irresponsibly.
The introduction of a licensing regime looks,
on the face of it, to be an attractive proposition. It would mean
that the whereabouts of all legitimately held airguns would be
known and that the police would be able to ensure that only responsible
people would be able legally to own one. However the resource
implications for police Firearms Licensing Departments would be
severe in relation to the scale of the problem it was meant to
be tackling. Its effect on reducing vandalism and injuries to
people and animals would be questionable because of the availability
of other missle weapons which do not come under the control of
the firearms legislation but which are as dangerous as low powered
Rationalising the age limits so that no person
under the age of, say, 18 would be allowed to have unsupervised
access to an air weapon would target those people most likely
to commit airgun offences. It would be relatively simple to introduce
and to operate and would be more economical of police resources
(although enforcement costs for the criminal justice system would
not be negligible). However, it does not take into account the
availability of small crossbows and wrist-braced catapults, which
can be misused in the same ways as an airgun and are not covered
by the firearms legislation.
An alternative would be to try to educate young
people about the dangers posed by air weapons. Leaflets encouraging
their safe use and emphasising the penalties which would apply
in the event of misuse could be made widely available as part
of a publicity campaign targeted at both parents and shooters.
This might usefully be tied in with a campaign designed to encourage
people to hand in any unwanted air weapons for destruction by
the police. By encouraging the safe use of airguns rather than
trying to discourage their use at all, some of the glamour might
be taken out of misusing them and a culture of responsible use
C. Controls on Shotguns
In general, a shotgun is a gun with a smooth
bore (the inside of the barrel) intended to fire a large number
of small pellets rather than a single lead bullet or slug. The
spread of small shot is intended to hit and kill small, fast-moving
game such as rabbit or pheasant. Shotguns can be divided into
three main types for the purpose of legal controls:
Short-barrelled "assault shotguns"
(self-loading and pump action shotguns with barrels of less than
24 inches or overall length of less than 40 inches). These are
prohibited weapons requiring the Secretary of State's authority.
Shotguns that are sawn off to have a barrel length of less than
30 cm or an overall length of less than 60 cm are likewise prohibited;
Long-barrelled pump-action and self-loading
shotguns with large magazines. These are subject to the same controls
as other firearms under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968. They
may only be possessed by holders of a Firearm Certificate issued
by the local police, who must be satisfied that the applicant
has a "good reason" for the possession of each such
shotgun. Smooth-bore guns with a bore larger than 2 inches, also
fall within this category;
Long barrelled shotguns with either
no magazine, or a non-detachable magazine incapable of holding
more than two cartridges. These may be held on a Shotgun Certificate
issued by the local police. Similar smooth-bore weapons such as
the muzzle-loading muskets and small cannon used by the "Sealed
Knot" (a society that re-enacts battles of the English Civil
War) and other historical re-enactment groups also fall within
this legal category, though the Home Office has no evidence to
suggest that weapons of this archaic type have been used in crime
in this century.
SHOTGUNS: A SHORT
The Firearms Act 1920 was intended to control
those types of firearms likely to be used by terrorists and revolutionaries,
such as pistols and rifles. As the majority of firearms in civilian
hands in the UK were shotguns, it was felt proper to exclude these
from the proposed controls. A "shotgun" was defined
in the 1920 Act as a smooth-bore firearm with a barrel length
of over 20 inches, a definition retained until 1967, when it was
revised to 24 inches.
This definition was intended to exclude both
smooth-barrelled pistols and sawn-off shotguns. However, as both
long-barrelled shotguns and their ammunition were freely available,
criminals took to shortening the barrels of these weapons for
ease of concealment, and the sawn-off shotgun became the archetypal
weapon of the British armed robber from the 1920s to the 1980s.
The growth of crime involving shotguns in the
1960s led to a system of licensing being introduced. Anyone wishing
to own shotguns had to obtain a "shotgun certificate"
from their local police, who would issue a certificate if they
were satisfied that the applicant could be entrusted with shotguns
without danger to public safety or to the peace. The applicant
was not required to show good reason for wanting a shotgun, and
there were no limits to the number of shotguns he could acquire
once he obtained a certificate. This measure was consolidated
as part of the Firearms Act 1968.
The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, which was
introduced following the incident in Hungerford, made four main
changes to the controls on shotguns:
It tightened the definition of "shotgun"
to make this conform more closely to the traditional English sporting
shotgun. Pump-action and self-loading shotguns with large magazines
were moved into the same category of controls as other firearms;
It required owners of shotguns to
ensure the weapons were stored safely when not in use;
It provided that the police could
refuse to grant a shotgun certificate if they were satisfied that
the applicant had no good reason for possessing shotguns. This
was intended to allow the police to refuse applications for shotgun
certificates where they felt that the applicant had no legitimate
reason or even a positively bad reason for acquiring a shotgun;
Shotgun ammunition could only be
sold or transferred on the production of a shotgun certificate.
These controls are broadly those in force at
present. While the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 made some changes
that affect shotguns, for example the ban on the postal sale of
firearms, most of the changes dealt with controls on handguns
and other firearms.
During the last 10 years, the number of notifiable
criminal offences involving shotguns has halved, from 1,234 in
1987 to 580 in 1997. This is in contrast to the overall rise in
firearms crime, from 9,002 notifiable offences in 1987 to 12,410
in 1997. It is also in contrast to the rise in handgun crime,
from 1,543 offences in 1987 to 2,648 in 1997.
In the figures set out below, handguns are used
by contrast as the main type of firearm used in serious crime.
Figures are for England and Wales.
In 1997, shotguns were used in 16 homicides
(some 27 per cent of the total, handguns making up some 66 per
cent), 120 attempted murders and serious assaults (as opposed
to 249 such involving handguns) and 299 robberies (as opposed
to 1,854 involving handguns).
During this period, the rise of drug-related
crime has apparently led to criminals carrying firearms routinely
for self-defence, rather than obtaining them for specific crimes.
Handguns are far more portable and easy to conceal in this respect,
whilst both these and fully-automatic weapons such as the Uzi
and MAC-10 offer a higher rate of fire.
Of the shotguns fired in crime in 1997, 11 per
cent are recorded as having caused a fatal injury, 20 per cent
a serious injury, 9 per cent a slight injury and 61 per cent no
injury. The similar breakdown for handguns is 14/35/12/39.
The number of cases in which shotguns have been
misappropriated has dropped over the past 10 years, from 768 incidents
in 1987 to 539 guns in 1997 (the method of data collection having
changed: some incidents prior to 1994 would have involved the
loss of more than one shotgun). This may be related to the safekeeping
requirement introduced in the 1988 Act. This is in contrast to
the rise in theft of handguns, from 116 incidents in 1987 to 305
guns in 1997.
The number of shotgun certificates has fallen
during the same period, from 861,300 in 1987 to 623,100 in 1997.
A summary of shotgun offences between 1995-98
by forces, ranked according to their rural/urban characteristics,
is at Annex A.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(MAAF) have advised that the use of firearms is generally safer,
more humane and more effective than many other methods for controlling
vermin, such as gassing, snaring or poisoning. They have suggested
that the use of shotguns in game shooting also provides a source
of income for farmers from the lease of shooting rights and encourages
good environmental practice such as the planting of woods and
the maintenance of hedgerows. Farmers may also wish to diversity
into other activities for which they have suitably open land,
for example clay pigeon shooting in which shotguns are used.
Within the proper constraints placed on firearms
in the interests of the public safety, the Government has no wish
to interfere in the use of shotguns and other appropriate firearms
for such activities.
This does not mean that shotguns are used or
should be used exclusively in "rural" areas, however
defined. For example, the Government notes that there are clay
pigeon shooting grounds in urban areas.
The possible changes that have been suggested
over the years for reform of the law in this area fall into the
following three main categories.
Prohibition on the possession of all pump-action
and self-loading shotguns
At present, long-barrelled pump-action and self-loading
shotguns with large magazines may be held on a firearm certificate.
Among the "good reasons" for possession of such a shotgun
are the control of large quantities of vermin (such as wood pigeon)
or for practical target shooting under the auspices of a relevant
organisation (the UK Practical Shooting Association).
Firearms of this kind have been used in crime
in recent years, in particular in armed robberies, though no statistical
breakdown is available to distinguish them from other long-barrelled
shotguns. To some extent they can be shortened for ease of concealment
but the housing of the magazine under the barrel or in the butt-stock
places a limit on this.
It is not clear that the misuse of such weapons
is either a large or a growing problem. We understand from the
Forensic Science Service that the appearance in crime of these
weapons declined over the last 10 years. Research surveys such
as Morrison (1994) tend to show that robbers using real guns favour
handguns. The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) are presently
considering whether any changes to controls in this area are desirable.
A single certificate for shotguns and other firearms
(abolition of the shotgun certificate)
At present, shotguns are subject to a less strict
form of licensing than other controlled firearms. The three main
differences between the controls imposed on shotguns and other
firearms are as follows:
Holders of a shotgun certificate
must notify the police when they acquire or dispose of a shotgun
but need not otherwise seek police approval. Certificate holders
may thus acquire any number of shotguns on the strength of their
shotgun certificate, providing they have secure storage facilities
The applicant for a shotgun certificate
is not required to provide a "good reason" for wanting
to possess a shotgun. It is in effect for the police to prove
that no such reason exists. This may allow the police to turn
down an applicant who has an unacceptable reason for possessing
a shotgun or who refuses to offer a reason. In practice, this
means that the police have no discretion to refuse any plausible
case for wanting to own one or more shotguns unless they have
reason to believe that the applicant cannot be entrusted with
firearms without danger to public safety or the peace;
The police may revoke, or refuse
to grant, a firearm certificate if they have reason to believe
that the holder or applicant has serious criminal convictions,
is of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or is in any other way
unfitted to be trusted with a firearm. The police may revoke or
refuse to grant a shotgun certificate if they have reason to believe
that the holder or applicant cannot be entrusted with firearms
without danger to public safety or to the peace. These two different
tests have led to cases where the courts have supported the revocation
of an individual's firearm certificate but overturned the revocation
of a shotgun certificate, on the grounds that an individual was
unfitted to own firearms but not considered dangerous.
In practical terms, the dual system of controls
means that the police must deal with two sets of certificates
and other forms, and two sets of slightly different legal provisions.
This adds to the complexity of the licensing system and may give
rise to confusion about how the law applies in particular circumstances.
The main arguments for a single certificate
A single certificate would allow
the police to maintain the same controls over shotguns as over
other firearms, in particular whether a person had a "good
reason" to possess a shotgun or a specific number of shotguns.
This would allow the police to weed out unfounded applications
and to prevent the unwarranted proliferation of shotguns;
The single certificate would reduce
bureaucracy by removing the need for the police and applicants
to deal with two sorts of certificate. This may in turn lead to
greater efficiency in the licensing process and scope for reducing
the cost to the police and the certificate holder;
Shotguns are as lethal as most other
types of firearms, especially at the fairly short ranges at which
much crime is committed. The idea of a separate "shotgun
certificate" is anomalous and anachronistic. It is logical
that they should be subjected to the same level of controls as
The main arguments to be put forward against
a single certificate are a mirror of these.
The interpretation of "good
reason" has tended to require regular use of all the firearms
concerned. If applied to shotguns, this would challenge both the
enthusiastic shooter's wish to possess a range of shotguns for
different purposes, and the more casual user's need to have their
own shotgun at all. For example, many vintage and high-quality
shotguns are sold as matched pairs for ease of reloading during
driven grouse shooting, and people may own older shotguns as heirlooms
as well as for use. Allowing for a range of police opinions on
how "good reason" should be applied, this could reduce
the number of people able to take part in shooting sports;
The checking of "good reason"
would require the police to make further enquiries as to where
the shotguns concerned would be used. When rifles are to be used,
the police are expected to check the nature of the land over which
they will be used, and a similar system for shotguns would be
costly and burdensome. This would divert police resources which
might be better spent even within firearms licensing, and make
the licensing process more expensive;
The current arrangement for shotgun
certificates has apparently worked quite well since the 1960s.
The concerns of the 1973 government green paper on firearms controls
have not generally been borne out.
This is a complex area and needs to be examined
further. The FCC have been asked to consider and report back on
the arguments for and against a single certificate.
Restrictions on shotguns in urban areas
Shotguns are traditionally used in the UK for
"country sports" such as game shooting and clay pigeon
shooting, as well as for vermin control on farms and country estates.
The scope for the lawful use of a shotgun in an urban area is
limited, which in turn brings into question whether individuals
living in urban areas should be issued with shotgun certificates.
Apart from the lack of "good reason" for urban residents
to possess shotguns, the risk of theft may be greater in an urban
rather than a rural area.
On the other hand, the substantially urban population
in the UK and ease of travel means that many people who live in
towns often visit the country for recreation, whether shooting
or other activities. Many of these will wish to own rather than
borrow a gun on the same basis as country dwellers. Furthermore,
people who need shotguns for their work in the country as gamekeepers
or pest controllers may live in urban or suburban areas.
A prohibition on ownership of shotguns in urban
areas may substantially reduce the number of those holding shotgun
certificates in the UK. This would have an adverse impact on shooting
businesses dependent on wider participation for their income.
The idea of "urban areas" is not defined
in law and would be difficult to achieve since it potentially
covers inner city through suburban areas to small towns. Many
predominantly "urban" areas, for example Greater London,
have farms and rural areas within them where shotguns might reasonably
The Home Office is not aware of any particular
problems associated with the misuse of legally-held shotguns in
urban as opposed to rural areas. The figures given in Annex A
do not differentiate between offences committed with legally and
illegally held shotguns. Nor does there appear to be a substantially
higher rate of thefts involving shotguns from urban as opposed
to rural areas. The available statistics show some correlation
between the number of legally-held shotguns and the thefts of
such shotguns, but the latter are too small by force area to provide
a useful basis for analysis.
D. Success of the 1997 Acts in removing handguns
The 1997 Firearms (Amendment) Acts resulted
in the largest ever surrender of firearms in the UK. It was completed
in a short space of time and without serious incident or risk
to the public. The surrender exercise was a tribute to the professionalism
and dedication of the police service and to the cooperation of
the overwhelming majority of shooters.
Over 162,000 handguns and 7,000 tonnes of ammunition
were handed in. With the exception of a small number retained
by the police, HM Customs and the Forensic Science Service for
demonstration and comparison purposes or donated to suitably authorised
museums, all of these have been, or will be, destroyed.
It is acknowledged that, prior to the surrender,
the police estimated that 187,000 handguns were legally held,
thus suggesting a shortfall of 25,000 when considered against
the actual number surrendered. However, the estimates provided
by the police were designed to give a general ball-park figure.
They did not in all cases take account of the fact that muzzle-loaders
and signalling apparatus were excluded from the prohibition. Furthermore,
the Act provided for the retention of handguns in limited circumstances
such as for use as starting pistols or for the humane slaughter
of animals. It was also legitimate for individuals to dispose
of their handguns by export, sale, deactivation or destruction
rather than surrendering them to the police.
All police forces have their own detailed records
of certificate holders and registered firearms dealers. They have
thus been able to satisfy themselves that handguns held legally
before the prohibition have been accounted for. The report published
by the NAO of its Value For Money study of the handgun surrender
and compensation (HC 225) makes clear that the police have followed
up any cases of doubt to satisfy themselves that guns have not
been legally retained. 16 of the forces visited by the NAO were
satisfied that legally held guns had been surrendered or otherwise
accounted for. The 10 forces who had been unable to satisfy themselves
in respect of just 35 owners at the end of the surrender periods
had nevertheless resolved three-quarters of those cases by September
Those types of small firearm that have been
exempt from the general ban on handguns are discussed in greater
detail in Section E.
The handgun ban was not intended to tackle the
problems of illegal guns or firearms related crime. It was a direct
response to the tragic events at Dunblane, which involved the
misuse of legally held handguns.
However, in 1997, 305 handguns were misappropriated
and many will have ended up in criminal hands. The ban will have
served to help remove this potential source from criminal use.
The latest available figures show that firearms
related crime has dropped. In the 18 month period since the legislation
took effect on 1 July 1997 the number of crimes in England and
Wales in which firearms (other than low-powered air weapons) were
used fell by 11 per cent to 7,532 compared with the 18 month period)
before when there were 8,490 such offences. This includes falls
in the number of violent offences against the person and of armed
Nevertheless, the Government is committed to
further measures to tackle the problem of illegally held firearms.
These are further discussed in Section F.
E. Controls on other types of firearms that
require a firearm certificate
The class of firearms that require a firearm
certificate is a broad one, this being the "default"
category for those firearms not otherwise mentioned in legislation.
It would be difficult to describe all of these in detail in a
memorandum of this kind, which has therefore been linked to clearly
defined types of firearm within this area.
The "residual" nature of this category
is due to the removal of two different types of firearms. On the
one hand, there are those that are considered particularly dangerous
and therefore prohibited. Most of these are weapons of a kind
used for military and law enforcement purposes and designed to
be particularly effective in combat. On the other hand, there
are those considered under existing law to be less dangerous,
such as shotguns and air guns.
In assessing whether one type of firearm is
more or less "dangerous" than another, the Government
notes the definition of "firearm" in the Firearms Act
1968: "a lethal barrelled weapon". All firearms are
capable of inflicting a lethal injury and, setting aside low-powered
air weapons, are likely to do so on a consistent basis if fired
at the fairly close ranges at which most criminal misuse occurs.
It is for this reason that these are subject to a strict licensing
system. However, such firearms will generally be of a sort that
are not favoured by either the armed forces on the one hand, or
by professional criminals on the other. Even those that combine
several characteristics that might make them particularly dangerous
will tend to have practical limits on their scope for misuse.
Anyone wishing to obtain a firearm certificate
must also satisfy the police that they have a "good reason"
to possess the firearm or ammunition concerned. This serves as
a barrier to those seeking to obtain the more powerful or less
frequently encountered firearms available in some other countries.
For these reasons, some care must be exercised
in seeking to single out particular certificated firearms as especially
dangerous. The selection of firearms discussed below are chosen
as having been the subject of some concern about their potential
misuse and the Firearms Consultative Committee were accordingly
asked to consider them as part of their work programme. The Government
has not therefore sought to draw conclusions at this stage on
their future status.
Muzzle-loading revolvers, sometimes referred
to as "percussion revolvers" or "cap-and-ball"
revolvers, were an early attempt to design a pistol that could
fire several shots in quick succession. They are loaded by placing
a charge of gunpowder and a bullet in the front of each chamber
of the revolver cylinder, and a separate percussion cap at a nipple
in the rear of the cylinder. These were developed in the 1840s,
were used in the Crimean War, the American Civil War and the early
years of the "Wild West", before being superseded by
more modern designs of breech-loading revolver.
During the passage of the 1997 Act, Parliament
agreed that muzzle-loading guns should be exempt from the ban
on handguns. As muzzle-loading revolvers were classed as muzzle-loading
rather than breech-loading guns, these were included in the exemption.
The Government notes that muzzle-loading revolvers
are small firearms, comparatively easy to conceal, and capable
of firing six shots in rapid succession. However, they are also
bulky, unreliable and slow to reload compared with modern handguns.
It is possible to reload a muzzle-loading handgun
more quickly by using a series of pre-loaded cylinders. However,
this is not a quick or efficient process compared with reloading
a modern handgun. Spare cylinders are also controlled component
parts and the police have generally taken the view that there
is no "good reason" to possess such items.
Original muzzle-loading revolvers held as curiosities
or ornaments are treated as "antiques" in law, and are
not subject to any controls. Many European countries, such as
France and Belgium, do not impose controls on modern reproductions
of these weapons, which are freely available through sporting
Despite this, the use of such weapons in crime
this century has been negligible. Anecdotally, muzzle-loading
revolvers have been used in only a tiny number of crimes in recent
decades. The Government is satisfied that the use of such weapons
in crime has been statistically and practically insignificant.
Since the handgun ban, there have been two main
concerns in relation to muzzle-loading revolvers. The first is
that a growth in popularity and common circulation of these weapons
might lead to their use in crime. However, there is as yet no
evidence to suggest that any such growth in criminal misuse has
The second concern is that former handgun shooters
would turn in large numbers to muzzle-loading revolvers, in turn
fuelling the growth of a "gun culture". It would appear
that after an initial spurt of interest in these weapons, the
growth of muzzle-loading has tailed off as shooters become disillusioned
with the practical limitations of these weapons.
A "carbine" is short rifle, originally
designed for use by mounted soldiers, and used today to describe
many short-barrelled military rifles. To avoid having to fire
a powerful weapon from horseback or to carry separate ammunition
for the horseman's rifle and pistols, carbines were often chambered
for common pistol cartridges. Modern designs of such weapons generally
have a magazine and a bolt- or lever-action, though many such
weapons in use are based on Victorian, tubular magazine design.
Following the ban on handguns, target shooters
have sought to find firearms suitable for use on ranges formerly
used for handgun shooting. Being less powerful than most full-bore
rifles, rifles in pistol calibre were considered a suitable way
forward. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has sought to organise
target-shooting disciplines for these weapons. The NRA have classed
these weapons as "gallery rifles" to distinguish them
from other full-bore rifles. For the purpose of the Home Office
approval of target shooting clubs, they are still classed as "full-bore
Weapons of this type have been used previously
in the UK both for target shooting and deer control but not in
any great numbers. Their use in crime has been negligible, in
line with the low levels of misuse of rifles in general in the
Some concerns have been expressed that firearms
of this type are intrinsically more dangerous than other types
of full-bore rifle but in terms of potential misuse they are comparable
with rifles in "rifle calibres". It has been suggested
that these guns might be sawn down to provide a small, readily
concealable firearm, effectively a handgun or the rifled equivalent
of a sawn-off shotgun. It would be possible to do so. However,
it would be difficult to control the gun or work the action of
such a weapon using only one hand. The tubular magazine under
the barrel or in the stock of these weapons also limits the scope
for shortening them. There is no evidence at present that criminals
have actually attempted to shorten such weapons.
Under Section 15 of the Firearms (Amendment)
Act 1988, the Home Secretary may approve shooting clubs for the
purpose of using full-bore rifles, small-bore rifles and muzzle-loading
pistols. The Home Office criteria for approval require that clubs
must have access to a suitable range for each type of firearm
that they intend to use. This means that those clubs that wish
to use pistol-calibre carbines on their ranges suitable for such
calibres must also have access to a full bore-rifle range. This
is anomalous. However, the terms "small-bore" and "full-bore"
are well-defined, whereas the term "pistol-calibre"
is more difficult to define. The Home Office is considering revising
its criteria for approval, and will wish to consider this point
.22 RIMFIRE RIFLES
When self-loading rifles were banned by the
Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988, an exemption was included for those
rifles chambered for .22 rimfire cartridges, the smallest commonly
available cartridge. It was argued at the time that these lacked
the range and penetration of full-bore self-loading rifles and
were essential for vermin control. Subsequently, self-loading
.22 rimfire rifles have also been used for target shooting.
Some designs of these rifles have been built
to look like military assault rifles. While this does not increase
their lethality, this practice might be considered frightening
and distasteful. Of greater concern is the fact that although
the most commonly encountered magazine capacity is for 10 cartridges
such guns can accept much larger capacity magazines.
The Firearms Consultative Committee (FCC) have
been asked to look at this issue in greater depth. Their report
There does not appear to be any general problem
with the misuse of either small-bore of full-bore rifles. Apart
from the sporadic use of such weapons in poaching, their use in
crime is generally limited. Nor have there been any particular
problems with shooting accidents involving these weapons, given
their use in deer stalking and vermin control in open country.
Full-bore rifles are required by law for the
shooting of large animals such as deer and also considered practical
for the control of foxes and other vermin. The Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has suggested that rifles are essential
for controlling deer humanely and that no other measures are appropriate.
As the police must be satisfied as to the "good reason"
for the acquisition of any particular calibre of firearm, this
places a limit on the use of inappropriately powerful calibres.
The use of full-bore rifles for target shooting
is well-established and generally well-regulated. This includes
the use both of modern sporting rifles in small but powerful calibres,
and other weapons in larger but less powerful calibres. There
has been some recent interest in large calibre "material
destruction" rifles such as the .50 calibre Barrett "Light
.50". The ability of such weapons to penetrate armour is
due in part to the use of special armour piercing ammunition which
is not available to civilian target shooters, and the potential
for the misuse of such a large and bulky weapon may be limited.
Nonetheless these are weapons in modern military use and the police
rightly exercise great caution in granting certificates in respect
of such weapons. Their use will also be restricted by the limited
number of ranges where they can be used.
It has been suggested from time to time that
the lack of proficiency testing for those who wish to own a rifle
for deer stalking or vermin control should be addressed. It might
be considered anomalous that a person who wishes to own a rifle
for target shooting on ranges should have to undergo a probationary
period at a target shooting club, while the deer stalker is not
obliged to undergo any training before shooting deer in forests
Despite this apparent anomaly, the actual number
of accidents involving firearms is limited and the shooting organisations
involved in this field are to be commended for their good record
of training and advice on safe shooting practice.
Those countries that do impose a safety test
on hunters also have a far larger proportion of hunters per head
of population and a stronger tradition of hunting on public land.
If a large number of people with guns are to hunt independently
in the same area, the risk of accidental shootings is likely to
increase and the need to ensure safe shooting practice.
This is an area which should be further explored
in discussion between the police, the Home Office and the main
Since the 1997 Acts there has been growing interest
in the use of revolvers with long barrels for target shooting.
These are essentially ordinary handguns, but their long barrel
means that they exceed the length of firearm prohibited under
the 1997 Acts. The first such design, the "Buntline"
was based on a design of the Victorian era for a pistol with a
detachable stock, but more modern versions have now been put forward.
These should be distinguished from long-range pistols, which are
target shooting weapons generally using rifle actions.
These guns are subject to full control under
section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968 and thus may be possessed only
on the authority of a firearm certificate issued subject to "good
reason". No national shooting organisations appear to have
developed shooting events for these weapons to date. More recently,
it appears that pistols with a somewhat shorter barrel and a "wrist
support" to extend its overall length have been developed,
though their legal status has yet to be tested.
There is no evidence that these weapons are
more of an immediate threat to public safety than other weapons
subject to certification. They are difficult to conceal and apparently
somewhat unwieldy to use. While these are closer in appearance
to some types of pistol used for long-range target shooting disciplines,
their ballistic characteristics are apparently similar to other
types of centre-fire revolver.
However, there are two obvious causes for concern.
The first is that the sawing-off of the long barrel, while illegal,
would improve the usefulness of the gun both for conventional
use in target shooting and potentially in crime. The prospect
that a certificate holder could obtain a modern revolver of the
kind prohibited under the 1997 Acts simply by a few minutes work
with a hacksaw is disturbing.
The second point is the potential use of these
items. While disciplines for muzzle-loading pistols have long
been in existence, and in the case of pistol-calibre carbines
were swiftly organised by reputable national organisations, the
long-barrelled pistol has no such "niche". The acquisition
of these weapons may be motivated in some cases by a desire to
own and use a "handgun" rather than a desire to take
part in legitimate target shooting sports.
However, there will always be limits to the
process of seeking to refine the scope of any controls. The definition
of "small firearm" adopted in the 1997 Acts was intended
to remove any scope for disputes as to what might be regarded
as "handguns" or "pistols". Having set such
a boundary it seems sensible to maintain it unless there is clear
risk to public safety.
Items of this kind must, however, be kept under
close scrutiny and the police will continue to consider carefully
what "good reason" might exist for individuals to own
2-7 OF THE
Sections 2 to 7 of the 1997 Act create a number
of exemptions to the ban on small firearms (handguns). Other than
as discussed below, there have been no particular problems with
Section 3 allows certificate holders to possess
a small firearm for the humane dispatch of animals. This exemption
was potentially open to abuse by those who wished to retain a
full-bore, multi-shot handgun used for target shooting under the
pretence of a need to destroy injured animals. The Home Office
and ACPO, in consultation with other interested parties, therefore
drew up guidance both on the circumstances in which a small firearm
might be needed, and the types of firearm considered appropriate,
in general a .32 single-shot pistol. The scope for abuse has been
recognised and restricted.
Section 7(1) of the Act allows certificate-holders
to possess small firearms if these were made before 1919, kept
or exhibited as part of a collection, and of a kind for which
the Secretary of State has declared that ammunition is not readily
available. The later point is intended to exclude those rounds
either commonly used in crime or commonly used in rifles and other
Section 7(3) of the Act provides that a certificate
holder may keep and use a small firearm at a site designated for
that purpose by the Secretary of State, providing that the gun
is of particular rarity, aesthetic quality, technical interest
or of historical importance. The idea behind this exemption is
that pistols worthy of preservation may be kept, examined and
fired if the owner so wishes at a kind of "living museum".
However, they may not be removed from the premises.
To date, two designated sites are operational:
Bisley Camp in Surrey and Brancepeth Castle in County Durham.
A third, the South West Shooting Centre in Cornwall, has closed
down. The Home Office is presently considering proposals for further
sites in the Midlands and the North West.
Both of these exemptions have fulfilled their
purpose and generally been successful without posing a danger
to public safety. The provision under section 7(3) was never intended
as a means of carrying on competitive target shooting, and this
is not permitted at designated sites. Owners of such weapons are
still required to satisfy the police that they have a "good
reason" to possess such firearms as they do with other firearms
that may be held on certificate.
Section 58(2) of the Firearms Act 1968 provides
that controls on firearms do not apply to any "antique"
firearm that is held "as a curiosity or ornament". The
main purpose of this exemption was to remove from the licensing
system those guns that were too old to pose any realistic threat
to public safety.
These are not firearms that require a certificate.
However, as they form a fair proportion of the number of "firearms"
in circulation, it is worthwhile mentioning them for the sake
The Home Office issued guidance in 1992 in the
interests of clarity and consistency, and to ensure that firearms
which might pose a realistic threat to public safety were not
freely available. This guidance provided that genuinely old (pre-Second
World War) guns of obsolete design or wholly obsolete ammunition
calibres which could not fire modern ammunition should be regarded
as "antiques". On the other hand there are some classes
of Victorian firearms, for example 12 bore shotguns and .44 and
.45 revolvers, which are "modern" designs of firearms,
chambering modern types of ammunition, and these should not be
removed from controls.
Within the framework set by the 1992 guidance,
the Government is not aware of any problems with the misuse of
this exemption, although from time to time the guidance has been
challenged in the courts, leading to some uncertainty as to what
particular firearms are "antique" and what are "modern".
The Government would be reluctant to depart from the principles
of the 1992 guidance, and sees some merit in providing a statutory
definition of "antique" guns tied to these principles.
This is another area which the Firearms Consultative
Committee have been asked to look at.
One of the accepted "good reasons"
for the grant of a firearm certificate in previous years has been
the collection of firearms and ammunition for preservation, study
and display. Concerns have been expressed over the years that
this provides a justification for an individual to hold a substantial
arsenal of firearms. However, as a general rule the police having
regard to the size and value of the collection consider carefully
whether any individual seeking to possess a collection of firearms
has a legitimate interest in historic arms.
However, it has been the general understanding
between the Home Office, the police service and reputable collectors
that collections of firearms should consist principally of those
vintage firearms particularly worthy of preservation. Furthermore,
it is expected that these be held without ammunition, which in
many cases will be vintage calibres no longer commonly available.
This limits both the scope for misuse by the certificate holder
and the potential danger should the firearms concerned be stolen.
Strict standards of security are imposed by the police.
The Government has taken a range of steps to
ensure that the licensing system identifies the suitability of
the person to hold firearms, rather than concentrating on the
firearms themselves. In particular, under the terms of the Firearms
Rules 1998, applicants for a firearm certificate must put forward
two character referees who must have known the applicant for at
least two years. These referees must complete a confidential questionnaire
about the applicant's suitability to hold firearms.
The Firearms Rules also provide that the applicant
for the grant or renewal of a firearm or shotgun certificate must
provide details of their General Practitioner (GP) and allow the
police to contact their GP to provide factual detail of their
medical history. This allows the police to make appropriate checks
if they are concerned about an applicant's physical or mental
A national database of certificate holders and
applicants is being established, in order to ensure that unsuitable
characters known to one police force can be identified swiftly
and cannot obtain access to firearms by moving between force areas.
"Gun Culture" in the United Kingdom
During the passage of the 1997 Acts, the Government
made clear that it was concerned about the growth of a "gun
culture" in the United Kingdom, and that it wished to curb
this. In view of the scope of the HAC's inquiry, it may be helpful
to expand on this point.
For many civilian shooters, firearms are simply
sporting equipment or tools of a lawful trade. Firearms also play
a necessary part in law enforcement and the defence of this country,
for which training in marksmanship and skill at arms is proper
and appropriate. It would also be wrong to isolate the misuse
of firearms from wider patterns of criminal behaviour.
However, firearms also have an image as a means
of resolving differences through violence, fuelled in part by
their depiction in cinema and literature. This may encourage weak-minded
people to seek to obtain firearms as a means of bolstering their
self-esteem. Lord Cullen's report implies that Thomas Hamilton
may have been of this type. The Government understands that amongst
criminals, the carrying of a gun and willingness to use it to
resolve conflicts is a sign of status and a means of gaining respect,
and the Government has no wish to encourage such attitudes amongst
the lawful gun-owning community.
For this reason, the Government would not wish
to encourage the growth of shooting activities that emphasise
the power and destructive capacity of firearms, whether through
excessive calibre and rate of fire of the weapons concerned or
an aggressive approach involved in shooting disciplines. Nor would
the Government wish to encourage any notion that a perceived "right
to bear arms" overrules the duties of gun owners towards
the safety of their fellow citizens and the wider public interest.
In general, such attitudes have not been a feature
of the British shooting community, which has tended to emphasise
properly-organised shooting sports and the safe handling of firearms.
While the Government is not complacent on this matter, its concerns
at the moment are with preventing any new and undesirable developments
in shooting sports rather than with traditional and well-regulated
shooting activities. The Government acknowledges and commends
the degree of self-regulation undertaken by many responsible shooting
bodies in this respect. However, this does not mean that the Government
regards self-regulation as a substitute for legally enforceable
controls where they are warranted.
F. Illegal Firearms
Recent events involving the criminal use of
firearms have resulted all too often in fatalities that have served
to fuel public alarm over an increase in violent crime. Any series
of shootings, including those witnessed over the past 12 months
in the UK, demonstrate that criminal elements are quite prepared
to use extreme violence. In many instances, their intended victims
have been individuals from rival criminal groups. Others have
been entirely innocent of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, since
the majority of these attacks are carried out in the street and
at night-clubs, the potential for the law-abiding public to be
innocently caught up is enormous.
The Government attaches great importance to
tackling the question of illegally held firearms and, whilst this
issue may lie beyond the terms of the HAC inquiry, it may be helpful
to comment on various aspects of it.
Criminals in the UK appear to use a range of
different firearms gathered from a variety of different sources.
Some of these may be non-working or blank-firing imitations. Others
may be illegally imported arms smuggled in from abroad; converted
or re-activated weapons; guns brought back by returning soldiers
from conflict zones over the years; guns stolen from legitimate
owners; even old guns dating from before controls were introduced
in the 1920s (or 1960s in the case of shotguns).
Regardless of the variety of methods used by
criminals to obtain illegal firearms, it is necessary to maintain
a proper perspective on this problem. Based on the incidence of
the criminal use of firearms, the Government firmly believes that
controls on legally held firearms do have a positive effect on
the number of guns in criminal hands, by preventing theft and
other illegal diversions of weapons to the illegal market. The
evidence now available leads the Government to reject the idea
that a large number of guns are "flooding" into the
UK from abroad, and rendering our controls ineffectual. The Police
Service and HM Customs have no evidence of organised and large-scale
smuggling of firearms into the UK, either through seizures made
by HM Customs, or by the appearance of a large number of such
guns in crime. It should be noted in this regard that both random
and intelligence-led searches by HM Customs recover considerable
quantities of controlled drugs, pornographic material and other
illegal material every year, of which firearms represent a consistently
When viewed in the context of all UK crime,
it is also evident that overall the criminal use of firearms involves
only a very small number of offences. But, because these involve
physical violence against the person, often with fatal consequences,
they can create public fear. Nevertheless, despite there being
only a limited number of incidents, this does not lessen the Home
Office resolve to support the Police Service in its endeavours
to tackle illegal firearms and help to reduce the fear of gun
Perhaps when viewed in the more global context,
particularly in the light of recent events in the USA, the UK
should welcome its absence of a gun culture. Toughened legislation
on firearm ownership, which followed in the wake of the Hungerford
and Dunblane tragedies, has served to promote greater public safety
by restricting legitimate access to firearms. The resultant legislation
was never intended to impact directly on the criminal use of illegal
firearms. Its focus had rightly been on preventing a repetition
of the awful events that arose from the criminal use of legally
held firearms. Other countries that repeatedly have to come to
terms with similar tragic events might benefit from our example.
It can be argued that the toughened legislation
has had an indirect and beneficial impact on the availability
of illegal firearms. Evidence from the Police Service and Forensic
Science Service shows that handguns, particularly the self-loading
pistol, have become the preferred weapon amongst criminals in
recent years. Yet the fact there is no longer a market in the
UK, outside the Police Service and Military, for handguns has
restricted the potential for these weapons and their ammunition
to be siphoned off from legally held stocks. This has indirectly
served to disrupt the activities of those few disreputable registered
firearm dealers who, up until the ban, chose to supply the criminal
The Home Office has undertaken a review of recent
events in London to provide a context for the issue on illegal
firearms. Since 1 January this year, London has experienced a
series of shooting incidents, many of which are believed to be
connected, and almost half of which have resulted in fatalities.
Many of these incidents appear to be related to internecine rivalry
between drug gangs involving a limited number of individuals will
known to the police.
This level of violence needs to be looked at
in its historical context. Whilst it is difficult to establish
statistically significant trends given the low numbers involved,
it is important to recognise that we are not experiencing a sudden
increase in firearm offences. Overall firearm related fatalities
remains almost constant. Other firearms-related offences show
a downward trend, eg robberies in which a firearm was reported
to have been used have shown the most dramatic decline since 1993.
FIREARM HOMICIDES FOR LONDON 1989-99
|Year||Number of victims
|1999 (to date)||21
|Total||188 (annual average: 19)
Source: Metropolitan Police Service
To demonstrate this further, firearms related crimes still
accounts for less than 0.3 per cent of all notifable offences
recorded by the police. In many of these cases no firearm had
been used or even seen, just a threat made. So far this year,
of the 14,500 emergency calls Londoners made to the Metropolitan
Police Service to report firearm incidents, 45 per cent were found
to be unsubstantiated or hoax calls. Much of the remainder involved
the misuse of air weapons.
The Home Office acknowledges that statistical analysis on
the criminal use of firearms has traditionally focused on the
types of crime and the categories of weapon used. Together with
ACPO, the Home Office recognises that more needs to be done to
gather meaningful data in other important areas. In particular,
further information is required on topics such as:
the number and type of firearms recovered by Police
the degree of repeat usage in shooting incidents;
tracing the origins of these weapons; and
emerging trends as to the types of illegal firearm
being made available and their sources.
It has been widely acknowledged that the collection and analysis
of this type of data would be of considerable benefit to the Police
Service and HM Customs. Until that time, the Home Office accepts
that more of the analysis will be based more on anecodotal information
than hard evidence.
To overcome the relative lack of information in this area,
the Home Office has relied on important factual information derived
from individual police operations to provide an overview on criminal
trends in the UK. In future, as set out later in this section,
it is anticipated that more will be done to identify sources of
illegal firearms to establish whether there is any evidence of
organised crime moving towards smuggled firearms, or an increased
reliance on re-activated firearms.
In the meantime, it has been of little benefit to speculate
on how many illegal firearms are in circulation. Suggestions that
there are in the region of 1 million illegally held firearms in
the UK are baseless. Greater benefit can be drawn from focusing
on what is known about the criminal market for illegal firearms.
The Home Office can provide some detail on the type and number
of illegal firearms being used by criminals. For these purposes,
information has been drawn from investigations into shooting incidents
and details of firearms seizures made by the Metropolitan Police
Service and HM Customs.
For example, of the firearms involved in the recent series
of London shootings, some 30 per cent have been firearms which
had been made inoperable through a process of de-activation but
had subsequently been restored illegally to working order. Of
the 1,780 "firearms" submitted to the Forensic Science
Service (FSS) in London over the past 15 months, only 40 per cent
(712) were controlled firearms of which 21 were reactivated weapons.
Annually around 500 controlled firearms are submitted to the FSS
London Laboratory and the pronounced trend, as noted earlier,
is towards a greater proportion of handguns than the previously
preferred sawn-off shotgun,
Work to trace the provenance of the illegal firearms seized
is still under way. Initial assessment, though, clearly points
to the vast majority being diverted from the legal market. This
is particularly evident in relation to handguns. The analysis
is based on information from a range of sources:
HM Customs reports that there has been scant evidence
of firearms smuggling;
manufacturers' records show that the weapons were
legally imported or made in the UK, with no evidence of subsequent
reports from legitimate owners and the police
show that only minimal numbers of firearms have been reported
the Police Service notes that the removal of serial
numbers, which occurs in about 20 per cent of cases, is a clear
indication of diversion from the legal market (obliterating markings
is recognised as a method by which criminals can defeat attempts
to identify the source).
If true, then possible solutions might include better supervision
of the licensing and administration of the gun trade, and better
and more uniform-training of Firearms Enquiry Units operated by
the police. Effective gun control requires enforcement activities
that focus on intelligence gathering as much as on administrative
procedures. Police involved in the licensing and administration
of the firearms trade are the appointed guardians and gatekeepers.
Together with the shooting community, they have and recognise
a responsibility for ensuring public safety.
The practice of criminals who re-activate de-activated firearms
is a major concern to the Police Service. Since 1995, operations
involving the National Crime Squad, Metropolitan Police Service
and Cleveland Police have recovered in the region of 750 de-activated
submachine guns that had either been re-activated to fire live
ammunition, or had been stockpiled with that intention. In virtually
every case since 1995 where a shooting incident has involved an
automatic weapon on the UK mainland, subsequent investigations
have attributed these to re-activated firearms, in particular
the 9mm Uzi or MAC 10.
Significantly, this is now largely a problem "imported"
from abroad. There is, in fact, no evidence to suggest that criminals
in the UK are able to re-activate weapons de-activated to the
latest (1995) standards. However, there is no legal requirement
for owners in most jurisdictions to register a firearm once it
is deactivated. Similarly, no obligation exists to notify authorities
of the domestic trade in deactivated firearms or the export of
such "weapons". This provides criminals with the opportunity
to traffic in de-activated firearms unchecked, and to exploit
differing standards of de-activation where they might exist in
The fact that the use of such weapons arises from incidents
related to organised crime demonstrates that the UK is not awash
with what may be termed "conventional" illegal firearms.
Organised crime's reliance on re-activated firearms, rather than
the type of conventional weaponry that is widely available across
Europe, reveals that this country's most serious criminals do
not consider smuggling to be a viable source of guns. HM Customs
figures for 1998 record that less than 150 firearms were seized
while being smuggled into the country. To illustrate this point
further, it is worth noting that some of the UK's leading organised
crime figures have been successfully prosecuted for possession
of firearms that were re-activations or conversionsnot
Traditionally, the mainland UK illegal firearms market has
been sustained by a limited number of dishonest registered firearms
dealers who have been prepared to divert handguns to criminal
elements. For example, in 1997, a joint operation between the
National Crime Squad and the Metropolitan Police Service resulted
in the conviction this year of a Brighton based firearms dealer.
He had been responsible for illicitly manufacturing sub-machine
guns from de-activated weapons, and diverting handguns with ammunition
and silencers to the criminal market.
The existence of individuals like this authorised dealer,
operating cottage industries illicitly manufacturing firearms
through the re-activation of de-activated weapons, would suggest
that there must be a reasonable market for their guns and that
conventional alternatives are just not available.
There would also appear to be an illegal market for converted
firearms and the Police Service have seen a number of variations
on this theme. In particular, 8mm blank firing pistols, modelled
on the Beretta 92 manufactured by Valtro and legally available
in the UK, have been readily converted to fire live 8mm ammunition.
Police recovered 12 examples of this weapon that functioned with
the same lethal potential as the conventional Beretta.
A recent innovation has been the conversion of low powered
air pistols to fire live ammunition. This relates to the legally
available .22 calibre revolvers manufactured by Brocock and involves
converting the "Air Cartridge System" to chamber live
ammunition. The "air cartridges" can easily be replaced
with a similar shaped metal insert that allows a live .22 or .25
calibre bullet to be chambered in the cylinder and then fired
with lethal force.
These examples further reinforce the Home Office view that
the UK does not have surplus stocks of illegal conventional firearms
waiting to be used by criminals.
This reliance on alternative sources of illegal firearms
can be directly attributed to the changes in UK firearms legislation.
The 1997 Firearms Amendment Act brought about a ban on handguns.
Consequently, the traditional source for these weapons from a
leaking legitimate market dried up.
This is further evidenced by an increase in the use of reload
ammunition amongst criminals. This is also attributed to another
beneficial consequence of the handgun ban. Much of the handgun
calibre ammunition made available to criminals in the past is
now known to have come from certain poorly supervised pistol shooting
1. Enhanced Data Collection
Much of the preceding analysis points to the need for greater
and more varied forms of information about the criminal use of
firearms. The Home Office is currently considering ways to enhance
the collection and analysis of firearms data already required
under Section 39 of the Firearms Amendment Act 1997. It is also
working closely with the Police Service in examining ways to improve
other forms of information exchange and criminal intelligence
on this subject. One particular focus of such an enhanced data
collection capability could be to automate the process involved
in the handling of notifications which authorities now receive
of all firearm and ammunition transactions within the legitimate
trade. This would greatly simplify and speed a process that traditionally
has been done manually on paper. Computerisation would help to
speed the identification of potentially suspicious activity that
could be a precursor to illegal diversion. The focus would be
on prevention to close a loophole that previously has been exploited
2. UN Firearms Protocol
Last January, the Home Office participated in the first round
of negotiations sponsored by the UN Crime Commission in Vienna
to agree a Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacture and Trafficking
in Firearms, Ammunition and Related Material. The Protocol is
part of on-going efforts to tackle transnational organised crime.
When concluded, sometime late in autumn 2000, its importance will
be to signal to jurisdictions around the world the resolve of
signatories to eliminate the criminal use of firearms through
better co-operation and the development of improved standards
and practices in areas such as firearms marking; import, export
and transit regulations; and firearms de-activation.
The Protocol's particular relevance to the UK will be to
recognise and deal with those aspects of problems associated with
the criminal use of firearms in which the efforts of domestic
law enforcement have been complicated by the international dimensions
of the criminal activity in question. As such, it is expected
to complement the initiatives described elsewhere in this memorandum
and foster a greater awareness of the issues associated with the
criminal use of firearms more generally.
The European Union authorities are also in the process of
reviewing the EU Weapons Directive which provides for minimum
standards for firearms controls in EU member states and co-ordinated
arrangements for the transport of firearms between member states.
The UK Government is playing an active role in this review.
3. Improved Police Response
The establishment of the National Crime Squad and the National
Criminal Intelligence Service has allowed greater opportunity
to focus the efforts of law enforcement on tackling illegal firearms.
Their creation should not be underestimated as a positive factor
in the ability of the Police to tackle incidents involving the
criminal use of firearms.
The Police Service is also actively working with the gun
trade to identify individuals who potentially are engaged in the
illicit manufacture of ammunition by monitoring the market in
component parts, most of which is not subject to any controls.
4. Other Areas
Where other areas of weakness have been identified, the Government
has sought to check these. For example, HM Customs and military
authorities take particular care to ensure that firearms are not
brought back by soldiers returning from zones of conflict as unauthorised
"trophies of war", due to the risk of these firearms
eventually falling into the hands of criminals.
The Government has also asked the Firearms Consultative Committee
(FCC) to look at the criminal misuse of firearms as part of its
work programme for the current year. There may be measures that
can assist both the police and legitimate gun owners in preventing
firearms from falling into criminal hands.
The Home Office is firmly committed to reducing the availability
of illegal firearms to criminal elements and will continue to
develop a broad range of national and international measures aimed
at supporting law enforcement agencies in their fight against
Crossbows are not "firearms" for legal purposes.
Setting aside those rare types of crossbow that possess a barrel,
they are not therefore subject to the Firearms Acts 1968-97 but
are controlled under separate legislation.
A crossbow is a form of bow in which the bow-stave (prod)
is fixed crosswise to a stock. The bow can then be spanned back
by hand or by means of a lever or windlass, and the string held
in place by a catch that is released by a trigger to shoot an
arrow, bolt or quarrel. The crossbow was used in hunting and warfare
in medieval times, being slower to reload than a longbow but requiring
less strength to draw. Traditionally they were popular on the
Continent, the English favouring the longbow. Crossbows fell into
disuse for these purposes during the Sixteenth Century with the
development of muzzle-loading firearms, but in recent decades
they have been revived for target shooting purposes.
The main legislation in this area is the Crossbows Act 1987.
This applies to those crossbows with a draw weight of 1.4 kilograms
or greater. It makes it an offence to sell or hire such a crossbow
to any young person under the age of 17, both for buyer and seller,
and prohibits any young person under 17 from possessing a crossbow
or its components unless supervised by someone aged 21 or over.
Crossbows may also be considered potentially "offensive
weapons" for the purposes of section 1 of the Prevention
of Crime Act 1953. This makes it an offence to possess any offensive
weapon in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable
excuse, proof whereof lies on the individual. An offensive weapon
is defined as any article made or adapted for causing injury to
the person. While a target crossbow may not be an offensive weapon
as such, people found in possession of a crossbow in a public
place might be charged on the same basis as if they had a knife,
club or other similar weapon with them.
There are no official statistics on the number of crossbows
in lawful circulation in the UK. The vast majority are used lawfully
and safely for target shooting purposes. Hunting animals with
any sort of bow in the UK is unlawful.
Anecdotally, it is apparent that crossbows have been used
for poaching and to injure wildlife, and occasionally in other
crime. Figures for this misuse are not collected centrally, but
levels of misuse are thought to be low and not to have risen in
As with other provisions dealing with offensive weapons,
the Government continues to keep this area under review. However,
the Government is not aware of any evidence that the misuse of
crossbows is either a substantial or a growing problem. On this
basis the Government has no current plans to change the law in
The Firearms Consultative Committee's Tenth Annual Report was
published in December 1999. Back